Friday, June 18, 2010

Vintage Pattern Sizing

 Pattern available in a 36" bust from ZipZapKap. You can re-size it to fit you!

This is one of the topics I get the most e-mails and questions about, so I figured it was time for a post on the subject! Vintage patterns get a bad rap for being extremely difficult to fit, but they're really no worse than modern patterns, I think. The big differences are 1) patterns were not multi-sized (there's only one size per pattern envelope) so you can't grade between sizes, 2) lack of availability, especially on the larger end of the sizing spectrum, 3) and changes in fashion silhouette that affect ease. But don't let this discourage you from trying vintage patterns!

Here's my low-down of tips to keep in mind:
  • As with modern patterns, it's best to order based on your high bust measurement. This measurement is taken underneath your armpits, but above your breasts. The reasoning here is that this measurement is the best reflection of the size of your frame, while your bust measurement doesn't necessarily tell you much other than your bustiness factor. My high bust measurement is 36", but my full bust is 38". So my ideal pattern size is 36".
  • BUT! Just because this pattern fits my high bust certainly does not mean it's going to fit the rest of my body. But I can be pretty much assured that I'll get a nice fit throughout the shoulders, and I can add more width where needed elsewhere. Another personal example: My waist measurement is currently 31". But a bust 36" pattern is meant to fit a 28" waist. This means I need an extra 3" around the waist. Divide that number by 4 (for each quadrant of your upper body) and you get 3/4". So I need to add 3/4" to each of my side seams, tapering down from the armpit. Make sense? This won't affect the fit of the armholes, sleeves, or the shoulders.
  • Repeat the above process if needed for the hips.
  • Just as with modern patterns, if you're bigger or smaller than a B cup, expect to have to make bust alterations. Learn how to do an FBA (full bust adjustment) or SBA (small bust adjustment) by reading a fitting book like Fit for Real People or Fast Fit
  • Because ease can vary on vintage patterns just like it does on contemporary ones, it's always a good idea to measure each pattern piece to figure out what the finished garment measurement will be. This will also help you decide how much width you need to add (or subtract).
  • Because vintage patterns are available in limited sizes, you need to decide how much resizing you're willing to do. I personally feel comfortable going one size up or one size down from my high bust measurement - meaning that I'll order a 34", 36", or 38" bust pattern and feel confident that I can resize it fairly easily. 
  • For one size up or one size down from your high bust measurement, you can generally resize just by adding or subtracting width, as in my waistline example above. You might also need to move darts in or out, but this is easy to do in a muslin.
  • Once you get more than one size away up or down from your high bust measurement, you're looking at a more complicated resizing process. I've had success slashing and spreading a pattern piece in equal increments to add my needed width in a balanced way. If you haven't read Sense & Sensibility's guide on this method, do so now!
  • With vintage patterns, it's especially helpful to make a muslin. Even if you've addressed all your major fitting issues by working with the flat pattern, you may be in for some surprises in muslin. Silhouettes naturally change from decade to decade. For instance, I've found some 50s patterns to be incredibly long-waisted, perhaps due to longline bras of the era and bodices that were sometimes worn in a blousier way. A muslin will help you confront these issues head on!
This is a big topic, so I'm sure there are things that I've missed. Any tips to add, dear readers?


  1. This is pretty much everything I do to size vintage patterns - I am one inch bigger than you all over, so I usually go for a 38inch bust (or 36 or 40) and adjust the waist measurement. The only other thing I sometimes check which you haven't mentioned here if it is a particularly fitted skirt, that the ease will be enough around my hips, as I tend to be a bit more pear shaped than the 50s silhouette.

  2. Excellent post, Gertie!!! This is one question/concern I hear a lot from those looking to sew vintage patterns, so now I have a link to refer them to. ;) lol.

    I think one thing that I've noticed with almost all the vintage patterns I've worked with is that the bust shape varies greatly from decade to decade. The decades that I find closest to the bust shape popular now are the 30s and 40s. The 50s and even 60s to an extent tend to be super "perky-high" bustlines, that don't always work well with our more rounded bra shapes.

    I think the best piece of advice (which you gave! ;) is really the muslin tip--it's essential, especially with complicated shapes/styles, to take the time to baste together a fitting muslin. So many times I've been thankful I took the time to do that! (Or annoyed that I didn't... lol!)

    Thanks for sharing all these tips, Gertie!

    ♥ Casey
    blog |

  3. I think the biggest difference between vintage & modern patterns that I have had to adjust to is having photos versus sketches on the pattern cover/pattern book/website/etc.

    Whilst this sounds small, I've noticed a massive differences in my satisfaction with the results, based on my expectations from the cover.

    My personal experience has been that many vintage (and even some modern patterns) use heavily stylised sketches, that never look quite the same as the finished product.

    Really for me the only remedy for this is to look around online to see if anyone has made it or to make a muslin.

  4. I've been doing a lot of alterations lately, and I've found I always have to take down the hips - apparently, my butt should be MUCH bigger! :)

    Generally, when I sew, I cut generously, and adjust as I go. I'd love to learn how to REALLY adjust patterns though, especially in bodices...perhaps I'll get a book one of these dauys!

  5. Wow, I have been sewing for about a year and never knew the high bust thing! This may sound silly, but do you mean that if a pattern is labeled 34" bust it actually means 34" high bust?

  6. For the most part I have given up on vintage patterns as those I come across are much too small for me. I don't understand this as there must have been plus-size ladies sewing back in the day. What happened to those patterns?

  7. That's really interesting. I love getting vintage patterns on Ebay, but i tend to find the bust is too big so have learnt to adjust the darts to fit. I will definitely measure my high bust though to see if that helps. I fear it might mean i'm in children's sizes though! But i think i'm lucky because altering something to make it smaller is always easier than trying to make something bigger. This has definitely given me the confidence to go for different sizes and have a go altering, rather than limiting myself to the patterns i think are my size. Thank you! x

  8. Thanks for sharing your tips, everyone!

    Casey, that's a great point about the bust shapes. Bust darts on 50s patterns are SO high! That is probably a subject for a post of its own. :)

    Miriam, that doesn't sound silly at all. The pattern companies actually intended for one to measure their FULL bust to get the pattern measurement. But for some reason, fitting is generally easier if you match your high bust to the pattern bust size. I think it's probably because pattern sizing is based on mannequins, not real people! Does that help?

  9. Oh, and sewistafashionista, YES! I know what you mean! There are plus size vintage patterns out there, but they are hard to come by, and they can often be of the "matronly" variety. One way to save a lot of frustration is to have a sloper or basic dress pattern that fits you perfectly and then use vintage patterns to knock off the details like necklines and cuffs, etc. Hmm, probably another topic for a post of its own.

  10. Thank you so much Gertie! I love these posts on adjustments. And lucky for me, you are like a human dress form, my perfect body double. Your tips will be invaluable as I tackle new projects for fall (just snipping the patterns now!).

  11. Yeah thanks Gertie, very helpful! By the way, i've noticed alot of people talking about dificulty finding larger patterns, and I just came across and etsy site that has some cute larger patterns at a good price (most under $10 I think)! The seller is "BeachRatz", i've never tried buying from them, but it's fun to look!

  12. Thanks for sharing this. I have some vintage patterns here and I haven't touched them yet, because I knew I'd have to make adjustments, but I didn't know how exactly I should make them. This post should already get me somewhere. :D

  13. I completely agree about the muslins! They are invaluable and an absolute must. Especially if you are making a very fitted garment.

    I highly, highly recommend Adele Margolis' book How to Make Clothes that Fit and Flatter as she talks about how to grade a pattern up and down, using two different methods and how to adjust for all types of fitting problems. I personally think that there are just as many fitting problems in using today's commercial sewing patterns as there are using vintage ones. It just depends on what battles you want to pick! Great post Gertie!

  14. Gertie, this is an excellent post. I know I as well as others will find it very helpful. I would love to see a post on the dart thing and maybe even a vlog where we see you in action moving those darts with these 50s and 60s patterns.

    As you know my mother-in-law passed away Mother's Day weekend. I've been going through her things and found a few vintage items. I found a formal with the high bust; so I can't even come close to wearing it. I found a vintage hat probably from the 50s, some sewing books from the 50s and 60s and long formal evening gloves, two of them leather and very pretty and a fur/leather coat. I will be sharing these things over a few different posts if you are interested in popping over and taking a look. So keep a look out for the title of my posts to see if they are something you would want to see. On Monday, I will shows photos of the gloves along with who the maker was.


  15. Excellent post! I know that a lot of beginner sewers are confused about pattern sizing in general. I've found the bust to be too big for me on the one vintage pattern I've made so far, so the high-bust measurement is going to be my rule-of-thumb from now on. And I completely agree with measuring out the pattern pieces around the waist, bust, or hips to figure out how big the finished garment's going to be. When in doubt, make a muslin!
    Well, I didn't really have anything to add, I'm just nodding in agreement!

  16. ...I feel like a huge dolt. Somehow, despite a seamstress for a mother and a bunch of sewing books, I missed the entire "high bust" measurement concept. I've been measuring full bust the whole time, not that I've made up any of my vintage patterns yet. This is good to know. It also means I can buy 38" patterns now as apparently "upsizing" the waist is NOT as difficult as I always thought; you make that make sense too.

    Whatever would we do without you? ;)

  17. Thank you, thank you. I needed this clarification on the higher bust measurement - I've been wondering why nothing seems to fit properly!

  18. Thanks Gertie - this is super helpful!

    Another alternative to muslin that I've used with my current vintage resizing project is swedish tracing paper, since it is sewable.

    On the plus-size vintage comment, try - she specializes in larger vintage patterns.

  19. Oh, my goodness you make this sound so logical and so much easier than I thought it would be! I'm re-learning how to sew after a 30-something year hiatus (8th grade home ec was a LONG time ago) and I'm still honing my fitting skills.

    It never occurred to me to go by my high-bust measurement. That makes so much sense! Thank you, St. Gertie of the Sewing Machine!

  20. Gertie, I love your blog and have coffee with you each morning! We have a smashing time, by the way.

    Maybe I am putting thoughts into some of the commentators...but whether you measure the high bust or not depends on your bra cup size and some comments suggested to me that people thought everyone should measure the high bust. (I apologize if I have misunderstood!)

    As Gertie has said, "Just as with modern patterns, if you're BIGGER OR SMALLER THAN a B CUP, expect to have to make bust alterations." One good explanation of how to do an FBA is

  21. I'm starting to sew again after a long time and since the goal of this is to make clothes that actually fit correctly, I've been reading more about fit. However, I'm having the worst problem dealing with bust measurements. For years while sewing, I thought I matched the sizing chart pretty close and would just adjust a little for my hips (high waist:hip ratio). But all that while I was also buying a size 38B bra. I went to get fitted for real 6 years ago and found out I'd been wearing the wrong size bra for a long time. I actually wear a 36D and it has made such a difference. The problem comes when I measure myself and then refer to directions on fitting. Based purely on measurements I have the same high bust and overbust measurements as you. However I remember you had to do a SBA on your parfait dress to make it fit a B cup.

    How can we have the same numbers but the fit be so different. I know that ideally, I'm just going to have to make muslins of a couple different style bodices and figure out my adjustments, but every time read something that says "if measurement 1 is A, then increase measurement 2 by B." I get super frustrated because it doesn't work

  22. sewistafashionista:

    For larger sizes, try concentrating more on mail order patterns - they're frequently found in 40+ busts, because they were aimed at a much wider (no pun intended, I swear) audience than those produced by the major pattern companies found in retail stores.

    Mail order patterns have never been quite as popular sellers, but they're really worth looking into.

    If you'd like to learn more about dating them (which is sometimes a challenge) take a look at my article here:

  23. This post is so wonderful! Thanks, Gertie! Great tips!

  24. You might want to consider tracing off the original pattern before making the adjustments. That way, you still have your original to go back to if you mess up. It can get confusing if you're making a lot of changes to a pattern.

    Another hint is to make larger than normal seam allowances, especially at the side seams--the sewing guru Sandra Betzina calls this "fit insurance." Then you have the extra fabric in case the garment you're making is a wee bit too tight. Easier to cut off extra, you know.

  25. This is great! From someone who sells vintage patterns, and fields these questions regularly, this is a wonderful, CLEAR explanation!

  26. Another thing to be wary of is how waist sizes in proportion to bust size varies according to the era and pattern company. For example, I see size 12 patterns with a 30 inch bust, 25 inch waist and 33(!!) inch hips, but then size 14 patterns with a 32 inch bust, 25 inch waist and 35 inch hips! If you're not fond of resizing (like me) it pays to look at the back of the envelope whenever an image is provided and see what the measurements actually are.

  27. My largest issue is lengthening the pattern. It's easy to add or subtract according to measurements given on the envelope but I wasn't really sure what the standard sizing was based on height-wise. I'm not sure if anyone else has this issue, but I found a link to the standard sizing that was established in the 40s, 50s:
    It gives average height for regular and petite, plus backwaist lengths for each size!
    I probably should've done a little more sleuthing on that earlier!

  28. Super cool post.
    This (I found it on one of my pattern instruction sheets) is a basic size guide for patterns up until the late 40s, when the 'size' 40 began to be replaced with sizes 20, then 22 1/2 etc.

    I tend to get hi bust patterns for this reason. Im always having to adjust patterns no matter what. I have a 42" high bust, so I try to get size 40+ patterns.

    Plus size pattern are totally out there...if I havent bought them all :)

  29. Gertie, I just picked up Fit for Real People based on your recommendation and oh holy cow why did I not own this already? I'm on the lookout now for their Pants for Real People book! I stayed up all night reading this book over and over!

    Thanks for the headsup!!

    ~Kelli @ Smidgens

  30. Wow! Excellent information! Thanks so much.

  31. Very helpful. I also wonder if women had better posture in the '40s and '50s. That may well affect how patterns fit.

  32. This is not a tip but a comment... I have found that vintage patterns tend to go the other way, in that it's pretty hard to find SMALL patterns. I often come across things in sizes 14 and up, but it's rare to find anything in size 8-10. This may of course be because in those days the sizing started from a 10 or something rather than the 00 sizes that are around now, but it always makes me wonder whether smaller women were able to buy ready-made stuff more easily and therefore just didn't need to sew, or whether they just didn't like to give their patterns to op shops?? I still buy bigger sized patterns because I love the pictures (I'm really not into photos on pattern covers, regardless of the fact that they give you a much better idea of what the pattern will look like finished) but all that resizing work from a size 18 down to an 8 or whatever I would be is just too much for my brain to handle!
    Also, I think when it comes to 50s patterns in particular, they did not MAKE any patterns with busts as small as mine!! Due to the hourglass shape that they were aiming for anything that has a bust that is my size will have a waist so small it would only fit a toddler!!

  33. Thanks for the post. Mens clothing vintage patterns are better beause there is only one size one the sheet. And patterns from the seventies fit more like today's mens high fashion and have more style than do current patterns. With a small amount restyling with collar width on shirts and rise depth on pants I can get a pattern that is more fashionable than anything I can buy. Its interesting to read about womens vintage patterns.

  34. Great post. I pattern-draft and make my own clothes and have recently used a couple of vintage patterns to inspire a sewing pattern collection (check out my blog- I'm working on it at the moment: The patterns were from the 1950s when women wore very different underwear to us nowadays- conical bras, waspies/ waist- cinchers and petticoats, which gave them a different foundation shape. One dress I made I had to lower the darts, as they were very high and a pair of trousers had masses of fabric at the hips. The pattern collection I am working on is inspired by vintage style, but designed to fit the modern shape. As far as grading and drafting goes, I cant recommend Winifred Aldrich enough. Her books are complex, but once you start getting to grips with the terminology and methods, they are fantastic resources.
    Sarah x

  35. The comments here are nearly as helpful as the original post. Thanks ladies.

  36. I agree with tracing your patterns first so that the original is not damaged. After all, this is the only way that intact vintage patterns will be available to future sewers.

    I use lightweight non-woven interfacing which is durable and makes for very easy tissue fitting. has been a great find for me. It is now a pay per month service, but it has the most comprehensive advice on fitting that I have found. You can also join a monthly sew-along and be advised on your specific fitting issues. You upload photos of your garment for advice from Patricia Schoeman and there are relevant videos on key fitting issues. I have no personal link with the site, but it is excellent and a great way to 'coach' you through fitting a garment.

  37. to FourthDaughter: Make sure you are shopping for vintage patterns by measurements and not by size number. A modern size 8 is close to a vintage size 18 -- there may not be any grading at all (let alone 10 sizes worth).

    I may need correction here, but weren't the size numbers a continutation of the "age" sizes for children? After children's sizes 8 and 10 came misses sizes 12 and 14? So if you are feeling badly about needing a size 18, just think of yourself as vintage teen-age size!

  38. "if you're bigger or smaller than a B cup, expect to have to make bust alterations."

    Actually, I'll disagree with this blanket statement. I'm a D cup and I rarely have to do a(n) FBA on vintage 50s & 60s patterns. That perky high bust (bullet bras!) that Casey mentioned in her comment actually adds enough room that I rarely need to add more with the traditional FBA. I do a muslin to check in case I need a bit of additional length in front. But essentially I do NOT need to always do an FBA, whereas for most modern patterns I do.

    The 30s and 40s had a slimmer silhouette in general but so many feature gathering at the yoke in front, that there is enough fullness I rarely need an FBA for those either (but again, muslins are your best friend when you sew vintage!)

    Also, the other Angie posting above me is correct. Vintage patterns were in fact sized as a continuation of year/age, with 8 meaning "8 years". It's very intersting research if you're so inclined!

    angie --

  39. Late to the show, but as always, you've got another fascinating post.

    The problem I'm having with beginning to sew again (last thing was a cloak nearly 10 years ago) is trying to figure out which adjustments I actually need. Having no access to sewing classes (lack of funds) means that I'm mainly researching online, and while I've seen lots of references to adjustments, and how to draft them, I've not seen anything that says how to know which adjustments you need.

    Does Fit For Real People include that? I've been toying with ordering it online, but I'd rather get one book if I can get away with it instead of two or three books...

  40. I love the look of vintage patterns. I've recently purchased a couple of the Vogue vintage patterns to try. I love the 30's and 40's styles. I'm just getting into the vintage patterns so I appreciate the info on fitting and selecting the appropriate size. I think that I will have to find a book on fitting patterns. I will check out your suggestion.
    Btw, It seems that we have the same bust and waist measurements! If you are around 5'6" and are somewhat 'hourglass' shaped, then you are my virtual model--lol.

  41. Very intersting tips! I arrived here trough a link posted on another vintage inspired sexing blog, and I'm really glad I did. The two 50's patterns I tryied so far, which were supposed to be my size, both turned out to be two big. I thought I got my measurements wrong when converting from cms to inches, but it might not be only that...

    I've added your blog to my reader and will be sure to read it regularly!

  42. Hi Gertie,

    I've just linked to this post at my blog. I scanned in some pages of The Simplicity Sewing book from 1953 which has a sizing measurement chart and tips for taking measurements.

    I notice that the early misses sizes slot in among the teen sizes, so you get teen 12 and women 12 with the same bust, waist and chest measurement but misses are wider in the back, chest and neck and longer in height, back and sleeve length. At average height 5'3, teen sizes would be good for the modern day petite with a small bust (or "less mature" as it is described!).

    I would add that going by high bust is good for those with narrow backs and shoulders as well as fuller busts because it measures the frame. Also the ease in these patterns can be as much as 5inches (it says 4.5 inches in the Simplicity book but the 1960 Butterick pattern I'm working on has 5" in the bust) so as Angie says you my not need to do an FBA.

    Its always worth doing a muslin to see if you can save yourself that effort and check how high they've put the bustline! I do for vintage patterns because you just can't be sure about the measurements (I'm sure they're measuring tapes were on a different scale!).

  43. Sherry, BeachRatzJuly 4, 2010 at 1:51 PM

    Miriam, thank you for the shout out about my vintage patterns. I discovered this blog because of your post and it is a lot of fun to read and I may just be holding back some of the patterns I would have listed on Etsy. So for now, til I build my confidence, shop away.

    And after going through all the patterns that I have gone through. The measurements do amaze me and I am in awe of the vintage sewers who had to make the adjustments they must have had to make to get a good fit.

  44. Thanks so much for the tip on the book Gertie - I'm now halfway through my own FBA! You can see the progress on my fledgling (joint!) blog here:

    You're an inspiration!

  45. Wow, what wonderful post with such great info! I'm a total baby at sewing, but your tips here as well as the comments are like putting a floodlight onto things. Thank you!

  46. Thanks for the great blog site! I'm new to sewing, and was trying to be very thorough and read all my instructions and match my measurements to the sizing chart on the pattern instructions, but when I went to lay out the pattern pieces on the fabric, the pattern pieces themselves, the BACK and FRONT, had Bust and Waist measurements next to sizes (this is a multi-sized pattern) for cutting lines and these did not match the size/measurement listings on the chart. The pattern piece said the Waist measurement for a size 8 was 31.75 and the pattern instruction chart said the Waist for a size 8 was 24 inches. What gives? I know I must be missing something but cannot figure it out. My pattern is not vintage, but I'm hoping someone can help me:(

  47. Interesting post regards sizing the materials and preparing the cloth to ready to stitching to make a suit for tailoring profession beginners thanks for sharing.

  48. Great fitting advice.

    When I was younger and working in Manhattan, I bought a suit at Wallach's (yes, they sell women's clothing, too). I chose my standard off the rack size of 6. Wallach's provides free alterations and the tailor gave me advice that I have never forgotten and quite similar to yours. You must, must, must choose the size that fits your shoulders. That is prime because it is almost impossible to alter through the shoulders and in a suit the fit of the shoulders is key. He immediately took my matched size 6 jacket and skirt back and came back with the same suit with a size 4 jacket and size 8 skirt, lol. He had to alter the sides of the 4 jacket a little for ease at the hips and take in the skirt at the waist quite a bit (I had a very small waist but curvy hips at the time). I could not believe how wonderfully the suit fit when he was done. I think I had been unconsciously trying to accomodate my hips although going to large in the shoulders, by choosing size 6 all those years when I really wasn't a true 6 anywhere. Lesson learned. Also, being very long waisted (18.25"), fit in ready made dresses with a fitted waist has always been a nightmare. Ah, what it must be like to be blessed with a perfect size.

    I realize this is a very old post but perhaps my story will help someone, somewhere, sometime.

  49. hi you all must remember that the patterns were based on a style /silhouette not on real people my mother says that women squeezed into shapers or padded the areas that lacked. That was what the sixty's and seventy's were about comfortable clothing that fitted you (because it was a knit or big flowing maxi/prairie dress)


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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